International student Johnny Abraham researched Lupus during an internship with the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle

In Johnny Abraham’s home country of Italy, a steady stream of Italian youth bid farewell to their families to seek out an education and employment elsewhere. “We call it the ‘brain drain,’” Abraham said of the students who travel abroad for higher education.

In Europe, 16% of young adults are not studying in schools or employed. In Italy, that number is 28%. Even for those who do attend universities, jobs are scarce in Italy, the country with the third highest unemployment rate in the European Union. It’s a reality that makes the 21-year-old college junior grateful to study at SPU, where he is majoring in physiology and taking minors in chemistry and the classics.

Last summer, Abraham was selected for an internship at the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason, a biomedical research institute in Seattle that focuses on diseases of the immune system. The six-week internship — made virtual due to COVID-19 — gave Abraham the chance to work with a team of research scientists led by Jessica Hamerman, PhD, to study antibodies that are involved in autoimmune diseases. The research could yield important findings in the diagnosis and treatment of the autoimmune disease Lupus.

In addition to his internship, Abraham volunteered at Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle, which provides both in- and outpatient care to people with HIV/AIDS, many of whom are homeless. “It was a way to get out of my comfort zone and witness unique life circumstances,” he said.

His experiences at the Bailey-Boushay House influenced his plans to attend medical school to do primary care, but his summer internship at the Benaroya Research Institute piqued his interest in research. Johnny now plans to pursue an MD-PhD program after college which will allow him to focus on the disparities in health care for specific communities. It’s an interest that grows out of his own biracial experiences.

The Italian native from Monza, just outside of Milan, is also the president of SPU’s African Students Association. “My mom is Italian. Dad is from Eritrea,” he explained. His father was one of the few to participate in the first wave of immigrants to leave Eritrea for Italy, the country that had colonized the small country in the sub-Saharan region of Africa in the late 1800s.

“One of the reasons why I would like to enter the medical field is because I visited Eritrea when I was 10,” Abraham said. “I witnessed the conditions in one of the countries that shapes my identity. The privilege that I had to grow up in Italy, but being concerned with the poor living conditions in Eritrea, makes me grateful for everything my parents did. I feel a sense of commitment to give back.”


Photo by Lynn Anselmi

Related articles

Tuition Reimagined: Making college accessible for students

Why choose SPU

How to choose a college even if you can’t visit in person

Thy Tran: Knowing her worth